Well that was unpleasant.
The Steelers first loss of the year was teeth-grinding enough (more on that shortly), but I’ll preface this by noting that I wasn’t even able to watch all of it. Because of the early kickoff, I had to sneak occasional peeks at the score between zoom meetings with students—which I’d scheduled well ahead of time specifically to not interfere with any potential game action (thanks NFL).
If you’re wondering, it’s a special kind of unnerving to watch two anemic offenses trade punts and failed fourth downs, only to discover that the instant you turned it off, James Washington went for a 50 yard touchdown. Thank god I was back on for the whole fourth quarter, though. Ugh.
Alright, let’s do this.
“The league is racing to finish the 256 regular-season games, without the inconvenience of a Week 18, and the byproduct is zero enjoyment of some of the big games… The two Baltimore-Pittsburgh games are football holidays. Last week, Baltimore-Pittsburgh felt like a burden to be overcome.”
— Peter King
I couldn’t agree with this more. Not only did the constant rescheduling (and inconvenient timing) make last week’s Baltimore game feel like an obligation, it rendered the product on the field sloppy and uninspired.
It seems useful to remind ourselves sometimes that football is supposed to be about competition, excellence, and entertainment. No matter how many military metaphors we apply to the football field, the NFL is not actually war—the Nazi’s won’t take Paris if we decide to give a break to a couple of exhausted rosters (one from COVID, the other from constant schedule reshuffling). Moreover, I like King’s line about “football holidays.” What a stupid thing for the league to do to dig their heels in so hard marquee matchups become burdens…
“In their beginning years, [the WRs are ] like a fart in a skillet.”
— Randy Fichtner
Randy Fichtner, describing his young receivers:— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) December 4, 2020
“In their beginning years, they’re like a fart in a skillet. They’re just bouncing around everywhere. Like popcorn.”#FartInASkillet pic.twitter.com/Zj6QtYb4JQ
A couple things.
B) I sincerely hope this is an actual saying, and not just the best analogy Randy Fichtner could come up with. In either case, I now hope to never have a conversation with the man.
C) I can’t figure out what is happening with the Steelers passing game. Three weeks ago in this space, I complained that Pittsburgh seemed to have two types of pass play: either 70 yard bomb or two yard dink (which then relied on the WR to make the play happen). This was after the Dallas game, and I was frustrated that the Cowboys third stringer had seemed so comfortable throwing 7 to 12 yard passes up the field and moving the chains, while the Steelers seemed to try to do everything one yard at a time. The following couple of games, they pushed the ball up the field comfortably, and seemed to have worked out the kink. But now we’re back to ones and twos.
JuJu Smith-Schuster had seven catches against Washington, for 28 yards. Seriously. That’s 4.0 yards per catch. That’s only borderline acceptable for a running back. On handoffs.
Three of the Steelers’ top four wideouts (Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Chase Claypool) specialize in contested catches, and with Washington and Claypool, downfield plays. These are big-bodied fighters, not shifty punt-returners. One play I was able to catch saw Claypool pulling down a long-ball at the 5 yard line—getting position, adjusting to the ball, jumping a mile in the air, and meat-hooking it in traffic like Larry Fitzgerald. Watch for yourself—does this look like a guy that ought to be getting targets five yards from the line?
This play is not an anomaly; it’s what those three are good at. Why are we putting these guys three yards from the line and hoping they turn nothing into something. The only recent Steelers WR who genuinely could have thrived this way was Antonio Brown (again, punt returner), and the Steelers were quite happy to throw downfield to him all the time.
This won’t be the last note about the baffling offense.
“We put all of these stipulations in place. Everybody signed up and said, ‘Ok, this is gonna be cool.’ Nobody thought you would play three games in 12 days.”
This got A LOT of play over the week, so I’ll save the criticisms of Ebron’s math for everyone else. Instead, I want to get his back slightly.
Yes, as a million people have pointed out, teams play three games in 12 days all the time. But those weeks typically go Sunday/Thursday/Sunday: a very short week that you anticipate and prep for, followed by a very long mini-bye to recover (which, of course, you count on), before you get back in rhythm.
The Steelers are in the middle of Wednesday/Monday/Sunday. In other words, endless postponement, a hard-fought divisional game, a short week, another short week, and then just back into the grind. And, as we all know, they’re the only team with neither a bye nor a mini-bye all season. This is the most exhausted team in football right now, and it’s not even close.
I don’t say this to justify the loss. Instead, I think it’s a factor in the injuries that are starting to pile up.
Some injuries happen no matter what preparation you take (think: any play Vontaze Burfict ever participated in). But there are some that might have been preventable if you’d had a little more physical or mental recovery. And those are just as devastating.
The Steelers are currently on an absolutely blistering run defensively—even after the loss, they lead the league in something like 17 or 18 categories. It’s ridiculous. But by the end of the game on Monday, they’d lost three starting linebackers and both starting corners (and briefly seemed like they’d lost their All Pro free safety).
Were all these from preventable-by-rest injuries? Probably not—Devin Bush’s ACL tear seems like an occupational hazard, for example. But it’s hard not to notice this huge spate of injuries seems to be exploding right as practice schedules, physical therapy cycles, and mental preparation routines got shot to hell the last couple of weeks. You can only power your way through so much by force of will.
This may still be the best defense in football, even missing all these parts. But Ebron’s right—nobody signed up for all this. And only the Steelers are being asked to go through it.
“I don’t care about a game check. I’m sorry, I know there are people who don’t make the amount of money I do. I know that. So what?”
— Ebron (later in that same quote)
That said, I’d really prefer if these guys wouldn’t talk about their paychecks flippantly like this. Anyone who can afford to light $59k on fire (in a country deep in a recession, where the average yearly income is only $48k) probably shouldn’t be talking about money they don’t need.
I know I’m a minority on this kind of thing—I feel the same way about obscene quarterback salaries (no 25 year old who plays a game for a living is “worth” $40million a year; I’ll take that opinion to the grave). But if you can afford to [spit] away 59 grand, I know a lot of people who could do a lot of good with it. I’d be happy to introduce you to them if you want to take a week off sometime.
“When we go to the Super Bowl they just better give us the biggest plane, the best hotel, the top of everything.”
— Ebron (again)
Okay, last one with Ebron.
Hey Eric: quit saying, “when we get to the Super Bowl.” Teams that start talking that way in week 11 are rarely teams that are still playing in week 19…
Also catch the damned ball.
“I think the NFL will miss LeGarrette Blount, one of the best running backs you never appreciated.”
— Peter King
Where to start… I like Peter King; he’s a little vanilla, but he’s sort of the granddaddy of NFL journalism anymore (I still miss Dr. Z, RIP). But no, Peter, the NFL will not miss LaGarrette Blount, nor should they.
King’s retrospective on Blount only mentions his brief stint in the Steelers’ doomed “LaBackfield” once, and claims that Blount was cut because of his and LeVeon Bell’s preseason pot-smoking arrest. But if you remember 2014, this was absolutely not the reason Blount was cut. For one thing, the Steelers don’t cut guys for one-time pot busts (or have you never heard of Martavis Bryant, Santonio Holmes, or, you know, LeVeon Bell?). For another, no team watches a player plead guilty to a misdemeanor nonviolent weed charge, then mulls over his fate for 11 weeks before cutting him a month before the playoffs start.
The Steelers cut Blount because he was a petulant baby whose attitude was a locker room illness. He walked out on the team during a game because he was mad about his carries (a game, I might add, where Bell ran for over 200 yards—so, you know, no one was looking for excuses to pull him). Then he nearly got into a fight with Joey Porter outside the team bus, and made Peezy look like the responsible adult (*not all Joey Porter fights end that way). Blount’s teammates complained to Mike Tomlin to get the guy out of their facility—some didn’t even want Blount to be allowed on the return flight home. You don’t see that degree of animosity every day, especially in Pittsburgh. The fact that Blount got rewarded with a Super Bowl ring that year in New England is an injustice that quiet good-guys like Curtis Martin, Barry Sanders, and Frank Gore ought to never forgive.
So how about we don’t romanticize LaGarratte Blount, Peter. The guy was a jerk in college and a jerk in the pros. Scoring touchdowns in a Patriot’s uniform doesn’t change any of that (it might even make it worse).
That said, I await your retrospective on Vontaze Burfict’s retirement.
“Bruce Arians told Fichtner, ‘you gotta go talk to Ben, he’s getting sacked too much…’ of course Bruce didn’t talk to him himself [laughter], he sent Randy to talk to him… So Fichtner did and afterward he said, ‘Ben didn’t talk to me for a week…’ ”
— Kevin Burkhart
I think I owe Chris Collinsworth an apology. Kevin Burkhardt and Daryl Johnston were just awful as announcers (you really get an appreciation of the A-Team when you have to listen to the D-squad).
As for this story, I really wish it had been told by, I don’t know, anyone else. It seemed like a potentially fascinating nugget of insight into the Steelers offense under Bruce Ariens, but I’m not sure I understand what any of it meant.
For example, I always thought BA was really tight with Big Ben—why would he send Randy Fichtner to tell Ben something as mundane and useful as, “you’re getting sacked too much”? What was he afraid Ben would do? Yell, you don’t own me! and quit the team? Throw his coach in a locker for caring about injuries? And how, logistically, could Ben “not talk” to his QB coach for a week?
What is the meaning of this story?
“They can catch the ball or they can get replaced by those that will catch it... I expect guys to make routine plays routinely.”
— Mike Tomlin
I can’t figure out how a receiving corps this talented and this deep could be so dreadful at finishing the catch. That’s not a figure of speech; I really don’t understand.
I’d assume the constant rescheduling is disrupting their focus, but this has been a problem all year—especially with Diontae Johnson and Eric Ebron. I never really paid attention to Ebron in Detroit or Indy, but I saw plenty of Johnson last year, and I don’t remember him having this much trouble catching passes from Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges. Why is it happening now?
My best guess is that the incredibly fast “snap-set-pass” game is harder than it looks, since these guys are barely out of their breaks when the ball is already there. I suppose the short offseason may have made Matt Canada’s offense or Big Ben’s quickness harder to master. I don’t know.
Honestly, I’m probably doing too much work for them even assuming that stuff. These guys are pass catchers. Catch the damned passes.
(Addendum: what was Anthony MacFarland even doing on the field on the Steelers’ last 4th down pass? I don’t blame Ben for throwing to him—he was the open guy—but why was he even in the lineup in a situation like that? I know Jaylen Samuels is no one’s favorite, but if you’ve given up on your running game, then Samuels is your back. He can take a surprise handoff for a couple yards if you need, but he’s really just a pass-blocker and check-down receiver, which is all the Steelers wanted on that drive. And he’d have caught that pass.)
“Combined yards today
Penalty: 93 / Rushing: 56”
—Fox infographic, 2nd half
So the running game. Hmm.
The Steelers have broken 100 yards on the ground as a team once in the last seven games, and that was when they got 106 against the Jacksonville “we still might get Trevor Lawrence” Jaguars. In the first five weeks of the year, they were never held under 109. This is the most Jekyll/Hyde transformation I’ve ever seen that wasn’t driven by an injury.
Neither Benny Snell nor James Conner strike me as cornerstone players, but both are capable of running well. I don’t think the problem is the backs themselves. Any time cameras show a north/south shot, there’s never an open hole for Steeler runners. Is that a hopeless offensive line? Or is this a playcalling/formation issue? A blocking scheme? I have no idea.
That said, I want to preemptively push back against one claim I’m hearing lately, that the three-to-five yard passing game is mostly the same as a running attack. Here’s why it’s not:
Did you catch that? It’s Tomlin telling Cary Davis (years ago), “stop all that dodging and stuff when you finish a run. Bang your way through the finish of these runs and watch how these DBs, as practice goes on — they gonna start just getting out of your way. That’s the tone you want to set..”
That’s what a dozen four yard rushes can do, that a dozen four yard catches won’t.
It’s true, you might get James Washington to turn one shallow cross into a 50 yard touchdown in the second quarter, but in the fourth, that defense can shift because they’re still playing sharp. By contrast, when they know the bowling ball is coming for them, and coming on the next play, and the next... that can get into a man’s head. It’s why having rushing attack is about more than just yards. And it’s exactly what the Steelers can’t do right now.
“WAS caused the delay and should not have benefited from it.”
— Terry McAuley
The Umpire was asking for the ball at the end of the play. He then stopped the clock at :08 as he tried to get a new ball from the sideline. He should not have done that. WAS caused the delay and should not have benefited from it.— Terry McAulay (@SNFRules) December 8, 2020
This is one moment that I (aggravatingly) didn’t get to see in real time. So you’ll have to tell me in the comments how egregious it was. In the meantime, let me see if I’ve got it straight:
The referees didn’t have a ball for a last-second clock-is-running field goal attempt because Alex Smith ran away with it? And the officials’ response wasn’t to penalize Smith or simply allow the clock to run down—they instead stopped the clock to the benefit of Smith’s team, to let them set up and kick a field goal that they weren’t going to have time for otherwise?
In a game that essentially came down to three points (late-game chaos notwithstanding), how is this not a huge deal?
The trolls are out today giggling about karma for the Steelers’ first half goal line play against Baltimore last week, but untangling a 17-man pile-up is going to take time (and as BTSC noted last week, Baltimore linemen were laying on the ground long after that play ended too). That’s very different than a 15-year veteran quarterback running away with the ball and pretending he didn’t know that was illegal—and then referees giving his team a break.
To put it another way, if an official misses or shrugs off a maybe/maybe-not penalty, fans may be rightfully frustrated. But that happens all the time. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of refs stepping in and altering the rule-book and the game-flow to give one team an advantage, especially when that team was the cause of the problem in the first place. It feels like the dreaded “inadvertant whistle” error, except that this wasn’t an error; it was on purpose.
This looks bad. Am I missing something?
“I don’t ever want to lose enough games to get a guy like you [Chase Young]. You’ve got to lose 14, 15 games...”
— Mike Tomlin
And this week’s “Compliment that Hurts” award goes, once again, to Mike Tomlin. I have more to say about Tomlin in another piece (which got too long for this article). But I literally laughed out loud seeing this line this morning. Never mess with a wordsmith; he’s liable to insult all your friends while leaving you flattered and confused.
In any case, cross your fingers for Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, and especially Robert Spillane, whose injury looked the worst. (Then send a little goodwill toward Tomlin and Kevin Colbert, for grabbing Avery Williamson a month ago.) As of today, the AFC playoffs still run through Pittsburgh. Onward.